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Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks
May 19–August 5, 2012
Philadelphia, PA (March 2012)—A pioneering photographer who composed staged scenes for the camera, Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925–1972) was an artist known and admired by a close circle of fellow photographers, writers, and scholars. His work throughout the late 1950s and 60s, which is the focus of this exhibition, incorporated the motifs of dolls and masks, foreshadowing his iconic 1972 project The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, and proving extremely influential for a future generation of photographers. Dolls and Masks features more than 40 photographs made between 1957 and 1968.
“Meatyard’s staged photographs put an uncanny spin on family snapshots,” observes Peter Barberie, The Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Musem of Art. “The impact of his innovative content and visual approach can be seen in the work of acclaimed photographers as diverse as Emmet Gowin and Cindy Sherman, who have both cited Meatyard as an influence.”
Many of the works in the exhibition depict Meatyard’s wife, children and friends wearing masks that he purchased at five and dime stores or found at thrift stores and junkyards. Other photographs feature soiled and dismembered dolls. All the pictures are staged in rundown Victorian houses, cemeteries, and forests. Altering the people and dolls in his pictures so that no one or anything appears as expected, Meatyard played with type, age, and gender, exploring the contrasts between youth and maturity, childhood and mortality, intimacy and unknowability.
Most of the photographs are untitled; many depict his subjects wearing masks and posed in various settings, while in other images figures simply hold masks or pose next to them. Dolls in some instances take the place of humans, posed in their own constructed scenarios, while in other images, their heads float in a body of water or simply fill the pictorial field. Doll parts appear in numerous photographs, a severed arm across a piece of a broken door or held in the hand of a young boy. In a suite of seven photographs, Meatyard’s eldest son stands against a brick wall, wearing different masks in six of the pictures and posing maskless in a single one, his face obscured by the blur of motion.
In her catalogue essay, Elizabeth Siegel notes that “because of the disturbing juxtapositions of children with grotesque masks and abandoned or broken dolls,” Meatyard’s work is often interpreted as dark and macabre, but that in his few writings, interviews, and lectures, “we see a much more human impulse in his photographs, a pictorial and emotional framework in which the strange becomes familiar and the specific universal.”
The fully illustrated, 144-page catalogue is published by Radius Books, with essays by Siegel, the Art Institute of Chicago’s associate curator of photography, and historian of photography Eugenia Parry.
About Ralph Eugene Meatyard
An optician with a private optometry practice in Lexington, Kentucky, Meatyard made photographs mostly during weekends and holidays and the work he produced was for himself and the erudite group in which he circulated, including the writers Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton. Although his pictures have been noted for their remarkable surrealism, Meatyard worked outside of the photography mainstream, and was never aligned with any art movement, nor did he identify himself with any artistic group. Meatyard purchased his first camera in 1950 and joined the Lexington Camera Club in 1954, where fellow members Cranston Ritchie, a photographer, and the photography historian Van Deren Coke became important mentors. Two years later, Coke showed Meatyard’s work in an exhibition for the University of Kentucky and during the mid 1950s Meatyard attended a series of summer workshops run by renowned photographers Henry Holmes Smith and Minor White. In 1959, Meatyard had his first solo show at Tulane University.